8 Facts About Humpback Whales You Probably Never Knew

Photo Credit Trilogy Crew Dani K.


That's the number of humpback whales that our first Trilogy guests in 1973 saw during their sail to Lana'i.

Granted, that first charter was in the middle of July, and the humpback whales wouldn't arrive in Maui for another four or five months. That said, in 1973, the number of humpback whales in Maui is estimated to have been 10 times lower than the current population today. 1973 was also the same year that hunting and harvest of Humpback whales was outlawed in the North Pacific, and at that time, it's estimated that the Hawaiian islands had fewer than 1,000 whales.

Today, research suggests that up to 12,000 whales could potentially visit Hawaii each winter—which is astounding progress from the dire figures a little over 40 years ago. What's more, is that in addition to the increase in numbers themselves, researchers have been able to learn valuable information about our favorite winter visitors.

WE GOT MUGGED! Watch to the end as a humpback whale makes a spy hop to check out our boat yesterday. An unforgettable experience for all! Trilogy boats do not approach whales within 100 yards, however, whales are curious animals that occasionally come up to check us out.

During our Maui whale watching tours, we always like to educate our guests about the facts, figures, and mind boggling stats that accompany our winter whales. Here on our blog, we've previously posted some humpback whale facts that give the introductory basics, but we wanted to offer some insight into the lesser-known facts about humpbacks.

As one of the founding members of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and the first tour company in Maui County to follow Dolphin SMART guidelines for marine life viewing, we are constantly striving to enhance visitor's experiences while serving to protect the whales. We believe education is one of those ways, so for a glimpse of the info you can learn on board our whale watching tours in Maui, here are 8 facts about humpback whales you probably never knew.

Earwax Is Used To Tell A Whale's Age

Baylor University (Texas) researchers Stephen Trumble, Ph.D., assistant professor biology, and Sascha Usenko, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science, have discovered a novel technique for using whale ear wax to reconstruct whales' lifetime exposure to chemicals and environmental pollutants, as well as time-specific biological information about the endangered mammals.

Yes—earwax. Much like the rings in the trunk of a tree, the "rings" that are formed in a humpback whale's earwax tell researchers and scientists all sorts of data about a whale's personal history. In addition to simply the age of the whale, researchers are now able to use the earwax to study what sort of chemicals the whale may have encountered over the course of its lifetime. The earwax can also help researchers discern if the whale has ever been pregnant—and is often considered the most "valuable" part of a deceased or dying whale. For more info, check out

this article

from Baylor University on the earwax value of a whale.

Humpbacks Navigate Across Open Ocean Using Traces Of Metal In Their Head

Magnetite Whales

Magnetite Whales

Every year, humpback whales endure one of the longest migrations of any modern mammal. The Alaskan feeding grounds are 3,000 miles from our warm Maui waters, and humpbacks make the entire journey in approximately 6-8 weeks. What's amazing, however, is that there are no islands or navigational aids to use when making this journey. For 3,000 miles, these humpbacks swim through the open blue where it's easy to get turned around—yet somehow maintain a northerly heading that leads them right to Alaska. Even more impressive is that on the return journey back to the Hawaiian Islands, these whales are able to find their way back to the most isolated archipelago on the face of the planet—akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

So how do these whales manage to know where they're going? The answer, it's believed, is in traces of magnetite that's found in humpback's skulls. This is a naturally occurring, magnetic material that researchers believe allows whales to steer by the magnetic pull of the Earth. Put another way, it's like have a compass implanted in your skull to tell you the direction you're facing—but that still doesn't entirely answer the question of how they know where to go...

They Use A Move Called A "Crucifix Block"

Crucifix Whale Block

Crucifix Whale Block

We've written before about the whale maneuvers you might see on a whale watching tour in Maui, but the "crucifix block" is a whale maneuver that's hardly ever discussed. We all know that humpback whales are mating here in Maui, and the "crucifix block" is an aggressive maneuver used to posture at other whales. As opposed to a "spy hop" where whales rise vertically, a "crucifix block" is where a whale will aggressively lunge straight upwards, and then extend their pectoral fins in a crucifix position to brake, or slow, their momentum.

Can't quite get it? Imagine it this way: There are two humans staring at each other as if they're going to fight. Now, imagine if one of the humans flinched forward in an aggressive, intimidating manner—flexing his arms out as he comes at the person before suddenly pulling back. That's what a humpback does with a crucifix block, and while it might look similar to a head lunge or spy hop, a trained eye will recognize the specific move and know that they're watching a fight.

Their Scientific Name Means "Long Winged New Englander"

long winged

Photo Credit Trilogy Excursions

Megaptera novaeangliae.

That's the scientific name that's used when discussing humpback whales. Megaptera means "long wings," and refers to the lengthy pectoral fins that are found on humpback whales. On a fully grown adult, these pectoral fins can often extend up to 15 feet in length, and are one of the reasons the humpback whales are so aerial and acrobatic. And, even though humpbacks are the fifth largest whale species, they actually have the longest fins. For comparison, even though blue whales are the world's largest whale and can grow upwards of 100 feet, their pectoral fins are only about 10 feet long—or about 10% of their body length. Humpbacks, on the other hand, will only grow to between 45-50 feet, but their pectoral fins are 15 feet long—or 30% of their length.

Novaengliae is the Latin term for "New Englander," since the first people to document the humpbacks were whalers sail out of New England. Naturally, it was the long pectoral fins that drew the attention of the early New England whalers, and since they encountered the whales in New England's waters, the scientific name meaning "Long Winged New Englander" was born off the shores of Cape Cod.

There Are Wind Turbines Modeled After Humpback's Fins

Humpback Whale Turbine

Humpback Whale Turbine

Remember how we mentioned that the long pectoral fins help humpbacks move through the water? Well, scientists and researchers who create wind turbines have realized that blades modeled after pectoral fins actually offer increased efficiency in the way that air passes over the blades. The bumps on humpback's fins are known as tubercles, and it's been shown that placing "tubercles" on fan blades can actually alter the angle at which a blade can optimally perform. The hope is that in addition to turbine blades, the technology can be used for everything from fans and compressors to the shape of wings on an airplane. For more information on the blade technology, check out Whale Power and the science behind what's known as tubercle technology.

Humpback Whales Have Blonde Hair

whale hair

whale hair

The last time you went out whale watching in Maui, you probably didn't think that the whales you saw looked very furry or hairy. If you closely, however, the bumpy tubercles near the whale's mouth each contain a follicle of hair that's a very light shade of blonde. Strangely enough, as opposed to humans who are born with hardly any hair at all, researchers believe that whales are hairiest just after they're born. Humpbacks are one of the few exceptions where follicles of hair are still visible on fully grown adults, so the next time a whale tries to "mug" your boat and approaches the vessel real closely, see if you can make out the hairs that classify humpbacks as "blondes."

But They Don't Have Any Vocal Chords

Marine biologist Nan Hauser has studied humpback whales extensively in the South Pacific. She explains to Scott Pelley on this Sunday's "60 Minutes" why the animals use a complex mix of far-reaching sounds to communicate underwater.

That's right—these mystical whales that are known for their singing don't actually have any vocal chords. What's even weirder, is that since no bubbles are emitted while humpbacks are singing, the entire process takes place internally despite the lack of vocal chords.

According to researchers, it's believed that humpbacks make sound by manipulating air as it moves through their body. Imagine squeezing the neck of a balloon while also letting out air, and think about the different squeaks and sounds that you can create by squeezing the neck. It's the same sort of thing inside of a humpback, and the singing usually takes place in a head down position while resting in shallow water.

Weirder still? All of the humpbacks in a particular region are singing the exact same song—although that song changes and is different each year with most whales changing in unison.

Also, Whales Might Change Their Sound Frequency Based Upon Isolation

Photo Credit Trilogy Crew Dani K.

While the research behind it is very young, it's been suggested by researchers here in Maui that whales may change the frequency of their song depending upon isolation. Put another way, proximity to other humpback whales may factor into the changes seen in the frequencies of humpback whale song. It's also been suggested that influences such as boat noise could have an effect on the song—with whales potentially changing the frequencies to accommodate for external noises in the ocean like the sound of boats overhead.

With the number of Maui whale watching tours that operate during the winter, it can actually be pretty noisy underwater with all of the different boats. The next time you're out on a whale watching tour, notice what happens when a hydrophone is dropped into the water. If there are any other boats in the vicinity, you'll probably pick up the sound of their motor as opposed to the sound of the whales. Is all this noise actually affecting the singing? Researchers are working to find out...

Still have questions about humpback whales in Maui? Leave us a question in the comments below, and check out our options of whale watching tours for your next trip out to the islands!

Photo Credit Divemaster Matthew W.